Many families and communities have traditions and rituals they follow at this time of year – and SMUS is no exception.
The weeks leading up to Winter Break are filled with annual events that bring our community together. The first event, held earlier this week, was our Carol Service at Christ Church Cathedral. This yearly tradition draws members of our whole school community together for a beautiful evening of choral music and thoughtful messages.
Rev. Keven Fletcher began the evening acknowledging the breadth of diversity in our community that helped shape the messages read aloud during the service. A talented writing team of Middle School students explored their own families’ traditions and rituals, and put into words why they play such an important role in our lives.
Below, read the reflections and final prayer written by Yingfan B., Sophie D., Sophia E., Jason J., Chelsea L., Jessica L., William M., Spencer P., Jenna R., Bianca T., and Tiger Z.
Our school is a diverse community. Last month, some of our families celebrated Diwali. This month, others will celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. Still others will enjoy the Winter Break in a completely secular way. Yet when the writing team looked at our own families, which are in many ways different from each other, we discovered that we all participate in traditions and rituals at this time of year.
Which made us wonder, “What’s the big deal about these traditions and rituals? What’s so important about singing a carol or lighting a candle or watching an old movie? How do these things shape who we are?”
Let’s start our answer by considering a tradition we had in common – special food. We all talked about food. There were differences in form. For Spencer’s family, it centres on a big turkey dinner. For Tiger’s family, the turkey is replaced with a steamy Hot Pot with beef and noodles. We pretty much all agreed on the value of having hot cocoa while sitting by the warmth of a fire, while it’s snowing outside – it’s about the best feeling in the world.
We decided that the food at this time of year is actually quite important. The dishes are often something that we don’t have every day, maybe a couple of times a year. Sometimes, it’s prepared in a special way based on family recipes or it’s prepared by a particular person. In one of our homes, they have kids versus adults cooking contests. But whatever the form of food or how it’s produced, the important thing is that it’s shared with family and friends. It’s like the food becomes symbolic. It becomes symbolic of family and loved ones gathering together, leading to memories that stack on top of older memories that stack on top of even older memories. It leaves us with a warm feeling inside, something even better than a cup of hot cocoa by the fire on a snowy evening.
Then there are all the other traditions we practise at this time of year. We like how bright and colourful our houses look after we have decorated the tree and strung the lights all around. We even tumble into our cars at night and tour the streets looking at what other people have done with their lights. When it comes to presents, there are the regular gifts and the stocking gifts and the secret gifts and the games where we exchange gifts. In some of our homes we tear off the wrapping paper, everyone at the same time, while others of us come from homes where we take turns one at a time, savouring the moment, ripping the paper slowly, shaking the gift, then taking a peek at what we’re about to receive.
Still, it’s not about how we unwrap the present or even the present itself; it’s about the feeling. Whether we’re a ‘tearing’ family or a ‘savouring’ family, we keep coming back to the importance of the people we’re doing it with. There’s something about getting together as a whole family (grandparents, aunts and uncles) and spending time eating, unwrapping, talking and laughing. This season brings our families together, no matter how close or how distant. Many of us call relatives from around the world. One of our families even celebrates one day early so that they can video-chat and celebrate with relatives in China. These sorts of traditions make sure that we renew our bonds with family and friends. They remind us of what’s important in our lives – the people.
For most of us, rituals are part of this season. Chelsea’s family watches It’s A Wonderful Life every single year. Rev. Fletcher always reads A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Some of us follow traditions that link us to wider communities and back through time, like when Bianca’s family celebrates the birth of Jesus by going out as a group to the homes of friends and family, singing Romanian carols at their doorways, or when Jenna and Sophia celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah, lighting the Hanukkiah, saying prayers, and, of course, eating latkes.
When we sing Christmas carols or light the Hanukkiah, we link back to our families and communities – honouring them. Even watching particular movies or reading certain books creates a common touchstone beyond our own homes. These moments provide a sense of security, joy, warmth. When they don’t happen, it’s like something is missing, it feels awkward, weird, incomplete, like a key missing on a piano.
But when those traditions and rituals are there, it’s like everyone connects at a deeper level. We not only share stories about what’s going on in everyone’s current lives, we talk about family and friends who have long died. Sometimes we remember how funny they could be. Other times we remember how they faced their struggles, how proud we are of them. And this, in turn, makes us think about our own values – who we are.
One thing we’ve come to realize as a group is that we’re lucky; we’re fortunate. There are people who struggle to experience all these things that we’ve been talking about. It makes us sad to know that there are people who don’t have everything that they need or who feel really lonely. Most of this season, our group is in the moment and having fun. There are times, though, when some of us wonder about those who aren’t as fortunate and about what we can do in response. For some of us, the hampers prepared by our school are really important. We and our families make sure that there are extras in the boxes that go out – things that we hope make the season special for those who receive them. Beyond the school, some of our families find other ways to contribute, like sending additional dinners to families-in-need. Even from tonight’s service, all the money collected will go to Our Place Society, helping the local street community.
When we do things like this year after year, we remind ourselves of what’s most important – the people. Not just our people, but all people. We know that filling a box with food or making a donation is not the solution, but it is a contribution. When we try to do something for others, even a little thing that lets people know they belong, it can be uplifting for everyone, maybe even bringing a bit of joy – and that experience shapes us and the way we look at the world.
This evening, we started with a question, “What’s the big deal about these traditions and rituals? What’s the big deal about singing a carol or lighting a candle or watching an old movie?”. You’ve heard our response. Now it’s your turn. This season, we invite you to take a moment and notice the traditions and rituals that are a part of your celebrations. What makes them important to you, and how do they shape who you are?
We are thankful for our families, our friends, and the traditions that draw us together, no matter where we find ourselves in the world.
We know that sometimes we take these things for granted, not even imagining how different our lives would be without them. And so we take this moment to remember those who aren’t as fortunate.
We think of those who are homeless:
And we hope that a way is found for them to have more than simply shelter, but a place with food, water, happiness, and warmth.
We think of those who won’t be gathering with their friends and family this season:
And we hope that doors will be opened for them by people who are willing to welcome them and listen to their stories.
We think of those who contribute to our happiness, but whose lives are tough, like the people who pick the beans for the hot cocoa we enjoy:
And we hope that they are treated fairly and get a chance to rest during this season
Of course, God, it is one thing to hold these hopes for others, it’s another thing to act.
May we each in our own way reach out and make a difference to others.
If we do, perhaps what we offer this season will become part of the stories shared years down the road.
And maybe a few new traditions will find their place alongside the old.
For the loved ones around us and for the difference we can make, we are thankful.
So we pray. Amen
You can check out all of the photos from our Carol Service by logging in to the SMUS Photo Gallery.